Peter Diamandis, author of the Secret Peace-y Abundance, has been making great points this month about the decline of violence. Despite my book, Diamandis's book, and Steven Pinker's huge masterwork The Better Angels of Our Nature, the message is not getting out there about violence. Especially by watching hyperbolic television news, it's easy to assume that violence is on the rise worldwide.
It's not. In reality, war and violence of all types have been declining over the long term. Here's one of Diamandis's charts, which echoes others in my book and Pinker's book:
Unfortunately for our peace of mind, we're much more aware of every act in every conflict now. Diamandis makes the dead-on point that the best thing we can do to get a better perspective is to turn off the sensationalist TV news and get our information through more rational, less kneejerk means.
However, I think one of Diamandis's other conclusions might be premature. He looks at the decline of violent crime in the US and concludes that it is due to the creation of the Internet, since the decline somewhat corresponds with 1993, when the Internet also took off.
Without more evidence, tying those two correlated things together is problematic. First of all, he says that the reason the Internet reduced crime is that it's much easier to publicly implicate and shame individuals. This is true now, but it wasn't in 1993. It was many more years before people had convenient camera phones, for example, let alone video capability on their phones. Online video also wasn't viable in the early years, and there were not a lot of user-generated-content sites such as social networks or blogs in the very early days. The connection is even more tenuous in Diamandis's chart about worldwide conflict, since many countries in the world have much lower Internet penetration than the United States. If the Internet were the main influencer of crime's reduction, the decline might have started around 2000, and been more gradual.
Personally, I do think the Internet is one of the factors leading to the decrease in crime, but we don't know if it's the main one. And we don't know why. I've seen studies that more concretely tie internet access to the decline in sexual assaults specifically ... but not because of public shaming, but because online pornography is available as an alternative. These studies look not just at timing, but at location - as a region gets broadband internet, sexual assaults decrease.
The decline of crime in the US has been a mystery for decades now. Some people have credited better police techniques, the decline of certain types of drugs, even the legality of abortions. Personally, I've always thought it was a perfect storm of all of these factors. I've written about this before, not just in my book, but in these blog posts from 2010 and 2012 as well. It's likely that the rise of the Internet is one of them, but we don't yet know if it was the main one, or why. Is it due to the ease of public shaming? The sexual outlet of pornography? Or a widening of our circle of empathy due to more exposure to diverse viewpoints?
I don't want this to detract from Diamandis's essential point about the decline of violence. It is declining, and that's the important thing. But there is more than one cause, and it's necessary to keep ferreting out those complex causes so that we can more easily hasten violence's decline.